conservation

The Landscape We Need

Imagine you are a mountain lion, a badger, or a burrowing owl making your way around our region. Curiously, people often say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ but I contend that our imaginations are more powerful than that. We can imagine a lot if we have enough information to work with and give our minds the room to roam. We can put ourselves in the place of other species if we want, but only if we can face the pain that such empathetic contemplation may bring. We have left wildlife so little, but we have the power to restore healthy populations of wildlife for future generations.

Big Clever Cats

We have the great fortune to share this landscape with wild lions. To put yourself in the lion’s mind, imagine being a young male learning to walk from Aptos to Scotts Valley, getting across roads, keeping away from people, trying not to make their dogs bark, and staying under constant cover of forest. That young lion will also be learning, by scent, where girl lions are and where other murderous males have claimed territory.

Cat Map

Lions know how large to guard territories against one another to keep sufficient food for their families. Fresh deer are needed, one a week for each mature lion. A human hunter would be challenged to keep that pace up; it takes a lot of roaming. Mountain lions move under cover of trees, they shy away from moving around in the open if they can help it. They travel tree filled canyons, wooded ridges, and trails through the forests. To them, those places are like our road network- they must make mental maps as quickly as their young minds can do it, and those maps must keep receiving layer after layer of new information – especially where other lions prowl.

Badger

Two weeks ago, I was very pleased to find many badger-dug burrows in grasslands along the North Coast. Badgers look at the landscape in the opposite way that a mountain lion might. Where lions see woodlands as their comfy place, badgers prefer grasslands – maybe in part because of the lions in the forests! To imagine moving around the landscape like a badger, think about walking from the grasslands above Watsonville to the grasslands along the North Coast by staying mainly in grasslands, each night digging a burrow to sleep in, finding enough gophers and ground squirrels to eat along the way, getting across roads and never being seen by a human. That’s some tough going!

Burrowing Badgers

The burrows I saw were not fresh, and I couldn’t find a den. The badger foot tracks had been washed entirely away by a prior pouring rain. Probably this was a wandering individual, who kept moving after staying for a few weeks. Males disperse widely – even through forests. Someone was surprised to see a photo of a badger on their wildlife camera in a north coast redwood forest a few years back. I haven’t heard of anyone finding a badger burrow in a forested area.

Like vampires, badgers must be underground by daylight. Digging burrows is best done in sandy soil. And so, badgers’ mental maps include not only the network of grasslands, but also the subset of grasslands with homey sandy places where they can easily dig for food or make burrows.

Santa Cruz Badgers: Gone

There used to be badgers near Santa Cruz, not that long ago. They still occasionally happen through. When UCSC’s Chris Lay compiled local badger sightings and analyzed this species’ local disappearance, he concluded that roads explained badger demise. Roads are a big challenge to badgers. The frequent median barriers popping up on local highways have been important in saving human lives, but to badgers they are sure death. Conservationists in Great Britain, where badgers are held in perhaps higher esteem than here, have gone to great lengths to make sure badgers are now able to cross highways – laying down fences to guide badgers to the safety of underpasses.

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing owls probably see the landscape much like badgers- their homes are also in grasslands. Unlike badgers, though, burrowing owls navigate landscapes on the wing, so maybe roads aren’t so lethal. These wide-eyed, cute, bobbing, yellow-legged owls also used to frequent the meadows near Santa Cruz, but the last nesting colony was paved over by the administrators of UCSC. Now, burrowing owls are wintertime visitors only, travelling from their summer nests in inland grasslands. I wonder if burrowing owl families that once nested along the coast remember their coastal habitats and have been leading one another back to the warmer coastal grasslands each year? 

Owl Trip

To imagine a burrowing owl flight to the coast, you’d be starting probably in the grasslands east of San Jose. As the nights get chillier and shorter, something in your burrowing owl mind makes you want to fly towards the coast. One long flight across the buzzing Silicon Valley city scape blanketed by nasty air pollution and you might land in one of the few remaining grasslands on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains…. or you might keep flying all the way to the coast. This flight would be different than most of your flights all summer long, which have been much shorter. While you are taking this long flight, you keep alert to the increasing threat of peregrine falcons…listening for the alarm calls of other birds. As you get towards the coast, you feel anxiety as each year the available habitat has been reducing: will you find a place with good cover for the winter?

Coastal Burrows

A month or so ago, I went to UCSC’s East Meadow to see burrowing owls but couldn’t find any sign of them. I looked for the owl’s wintertime homes, but they were gone: the many ground squirrel burrows in the East Meadow are gone and I couldn’t find any. In fact, there were no ground squirrels AT ALL! Anyone know what happened to them? Please let me know if you do. Long ago, UCSC administrators destroyed the last burrowing owl nesting area in the County, and more recently they destroyed the burrowing owl wintertime burrows at Terrace Point, so I’m suspicious about this new loss. Now, the UCSC wintering owls must join their friends to hide in culverts or pipes along the North Coast for their winter homes.

Linkages

“Progressive” Santa Cruz is working on its first project expressly acknowledging the need for wildlife movement across this landscape, but much more is needed, and we can all help. Informed by much science, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working on creating a wildlife tunnel near Laurel Curve on Highway 17. To work, the land on either side of the tunnel must also be wildlife friendly. This corridor is in a wooded area and designed especially for mountain lion movement…maybe badgers can find it, too! Further South and East, groups are making great progress at protecting the wildlife movement corridor between the Mount Hamilton Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains through the Coyote Valley. This corridor relies on existing bridges under Highway 101 and also envisions some improved crossings over the Monterey Highway, which has median divider in many places. Badgers need this corridor to get to our region, but many other wildlife species could use this corridor- maybe even tule elk! These efforts need our financial support. We can also help wildlife movement by supporting better planning for protected wildlands, such as opposing the Homeless Garden Project’s newly hatched plan to move into the Upper Main Meadow of the Pogonip…or the seemingly continuous push to increase the numbers of trails crisscrossing parks. I hope you will take some time to imagine how your favorite species of wildlife travels across what’s left of this highly fragmented landscape… and how you can help restore the landscape we all need.

This essay reprinted from the one I original published via Bruce Bratton at BrattonOnline.com

The Chaparral of Santa Cruz County’s Highest Neighboring Mountain: Loma Prieta

Essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly online blog BrattonOnline.com.

Many of us are drawn to mountain tops if not physically at least visually, some even spiritually. Botanists go to see the unique flora. Some botanists are “peak baggers” along with many others. There is no “bagging” Loma Prieta, but the flora around it is very special. And the peak has been sacred to some but has been defiled by others, now buzzing with communications towers that make you want to stay far away.

At 3,790’ Loma Prieta towers above Santa Cruz, the highest peak of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The mountain is near the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz County Line and looks over the nearby San Andreas Fault. More people know the name of the peak from 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake – the epicenter was just west of the mountain.

Recharge

It snows up there almost every year and the rain falls in torrents because the highest peaks catch the most rain. There is little soil near Loma Prieta, but lots of well drained rock. There are patches of sandstone surrounded by a massive amount of mudstone. Craggy dark sandstone outcrops accent the slopes near Loma Prieta. Roadcuts reveal fascinating patterns formed by the nearby faulting. The mudstone and sandstone rocks were created by sediment washed into the Pacific from ancient California’s rivers, laid down in layer after layer, with different layers of slightly different colors, textures, and thicknesses. Tectonic movement has pitched those layers this way and that, sometimes in great undulating waves, other times tilted this way and that. The roadcut rock is fascinating mosaic art.

Rain soaks through these fractured stones, bubbling out below to form the headwaters of streams that provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands. Looking out from the mountain, you see the steep and thickly wooded Soquel Creek canyon or turn towards the other side and look down Uvas Creek that leads to the Uvas Reservoir and onto the Pajaro River, or gaze north into streams headed to the Lexington Reservoir.

Views

I try to visit the area’s peaks once a year to get my bearing and appreciate this place. And, I can see most of those peaks from Loma Prieta: Mount Diablo, Mount Hamilton, Fremont Peak, Devil’s Peak, and Ben Lomond Mountain are visible from there. A while back, I would visit Loma Prieta to get a good view of the region’s fireworks on July Fourth. Back then, the shoreline of the Monterey Bay was lit by many displays and there were many displays in towns all the way to San Francisco and beyond. It is a delightful place to see the entire Monterey Bay and a huge expanse of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. But really, I go for the plants.

This Chaparral’s Shrub Diversity

My favorite plants to visit up that way are two subspecies of at type of manzanita that is normally found a long ways north, but which have outlying patches on sandstone near Loma Prieta. The Hoary (A. canescens ssp. canescens)and Sonoma (A. canescens ssp. sonomensis) are beautiful silvery shrubs with smooth red bark so dark it is almost black. I visited last weekend and it was just starting to blossom, some shrubs had pure white and others very pink flowers.

This is a very shrub diverse area. In a short distance, in addition to the above, you can find three other manzanitas: Santa Cruz manzanita (A. andersonii) and brittle leaved manzanita (A. crustacea ssp. crustacea) and Rose’s manzanita (A. crustacea ssp. rosei). And, the ceanthus that normally accompany manzanitas are equally diverse with 5 species also occurring in close proximity to Loma Prieta: warty leaved ceanothus (C. papillosus); blue blossom (C. thrysiflorus var thrysiflous), wavy-leaf ceanothus (C. foliosus var. foliosus), buck brush (C. cuneatus var. cuneatus) and Jim brush (C. oliganthus var. sorediatus). More shrubs still include 3 species of silk tassel – bear brush (G. fremontii), silk tassel (G. eliptica), and ashy silk tassel (G. flavescens), mountain mahogany, pitcher sage, chaparral pea, bush poppy, coffee berry, coyote bush, and on and on. With this menagerie of chaparral shrubs, the scents are awesome as the sun warms the millions of resinous leaves.

…and Tree Diversity

Trees are super diverse up there, too. It is surprising to see a rare local conifer California nutmeg emerging from the chaparral. The canyon live oaks are everywhere in multi-trunked patches resprouting from multiple fires. There is also interior live oak, foothill pine, and knobcone pine. Some trees are odd: the madrones have paler orange bark than normal, the bay trees have more flakey bark, and the tanoaks have longer and or smaller more toothed leaves. The patches of trees are especially thickly festooned with beards of mosses and dense carpets of lichens.

Clearing the Shrubs – the March of Weeds

With the exception of a few patches managed by public parks, most of the area is privately owned, and it shows. A County Planner has told me on many occasions that the County’s policy is to not allow clearing of this rare chaparral type. And yet, you can see the expansive clearing from Highway One. There are immense mansions and squalid trailers, many with massive fire clearance zones. And, there are acres and acres of vineyards and horse corrals as well as sprawling greenhouses.

This network of development and the roads that serve them has badly fragmented this beautiful chaparral, especially in the last 15 years. Human incursions are made evident by aisles and acres of weeds: jubata grass, Scotch and French broom, and acacia are the most evident.

Even with all of the clearing but especially with the influx of flammable weeds along the roads, this area seems likely to burn badly one day.

A History of Fires

Many areas around Loma Prieta have not burned in a long, long time; but there have been recent fires. North and West of Loma Prieta, there are some of the oldest, largest knobcone pines I’ve ever seen, evidence that it has been a long time since fire. South and East of Loma Prieta, are miles of skeletons of trees and shrubs that belie more recent fires. The 2008 Summit Fire (4,200 acres), the 2009 Loma Fire (435 acres), and then the 2016 Loma Fire (4,470 acres) all have scorched areas around Loma Prieta, and all were human caused.

How to Visit

You can visit patches of this unique chaparral in a few parks. Some of this type of chaparral is at Mount Madonna County Park. The more shrub-diverse type is found in the Sierra Azul Preserve managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District at Mount Umunhum, the next peak north of, and not far from, Loma Prieta. The top of Santa Clara County Park’s Uvas Canyon County Park touches the shoulder of Loma Prieta south of the peak. This type of chaparral gets less interestingly diverse but still remains expansive in the upper areas of Nisene Marks State Park, say along the top of Aptos Fire Road.

Agricultural Ecosystems

This is another reprint from my weekly column at BrattonOnline.com, to which I recommend you subscribe, especially if you live near or love Santa Cruz California and want to learn more about what’s happening.

I was going to write this week about a native plant community, but someone made a comment recently that led me to change course, to focus rather on a very dominant ecosystem in our area: row crop agriculture. They said, ‘There are no animals killed in making a meatless burger.’ The statement took my breath away. Apparently, it is time for me to put my thoughts into writing on this subject, long stewing on my back burner.

Sacrifices for Veggie Burgers

Meatless burgers contain agricultural products grown on farms that have killed and are killing animals as an inherent part of their practices. The original clearing of agricultural land caused the greatest outright slaughter of animals. Many animals were crushed by the first land-clearing bulldozers or burnt alive when the natural vegetation was ignited. Some furry critters fled at first only to starve later when they were driven from one already-occupied territory to the next. Perhaps a few lucky larger quick and mobile vertebrate refugees survived. The many smaller, less mobile animals not outright crushed or burned were eventually chopped up with the plough.

After the clearing, crops are planted every year thereafter, and farmers trap, poison, or shoot ‘pests.’ In some cases, farmers fence, net, or otherwise ‘deter’ pests…sometimes entangling animals but always driving wayward animals onto roads or into the mouths of smart predators that take advantage of deterrence methods with their hunting regimes. Farmland becomes a hazard for wildlife, effectively removing agricultural lands from anything classifiable as ‘wildlife habitat.’

Yummy Bananas

Many of us have heard the tropical horror stories related to agricultural expansion. Giant farms have been expanding, destroying tropical forests, the most diverse of ecosystems, especially to produce soybeans and palm oil. Many areas have already been cleared, and the ongoing tropical agriculture is regularly killing thousands of species that are dwindling by the day. A friend told me of his first job on a tropical banana farm in the 1970’s. As a teenager trying to earn money to support his family, he took the closest job he could find as a laborer on one of the giant banana farms in Central America. His supervisor gave him small plastic cups to suspend from the banana trees and told him to fill the cups with a viscous liquid poured from a large bottle he was told to carry with him. He was told to return each day to refill the cups. Returning to those cups, he clambered over piles of a diverse array of dead bats that had ingested the poison liquid he was placing in the cups. This method of reducing the fruit pollinating bat claw marks (just aesthetic damage) on the bunches of bananas has since been replaced by covering the bunches with protective plastic bags impregnated with pesticides. But banana farms are still sprayed with deadly chemicals and are devoid of even the shadow of the tropical life found in natural systems.

Shade Grown

Even though we might turn to purchasing organic bananas and even certified organic, fair trade locally roasted coffee, those organic crops are grown on lands where tropical wildlife is largely obliterated. Organic coffee and bananas are grown in full sun, the rainforest cleared to make way for the farms. “Shade grown” coffee certification is largely a sham without defensible standards for conserving tropical forests and associated birds, except for the Smithsonian’s bird friendly coffee certification which is effectively unavailable in stores in Santa Cruz and so must be ordered over the internet.

Ranching to Vineyards

Locally, the story is little different. Agriculture is expanding in our area mostly from conversion of grazing land to vineyards, a process that does not trigger environmental review because both activities are considered agricultural. Oak woodlands and old growth grasslands that supported free-roaming wildlife and sequestered carbon are being converted to vineyards where wildlife is commonly fenced out and wildlife inside the fences trapped and killed. Tilling the converted grazing land releases long-sequestered carbon, adding to global warming.

The Local Veggie Farming Slaughter

Once agricultural land is in production, routine practices actively kill or deter wildlife and passively degrade wildlife habitat. Driving through the Pajaro or Salinas Valleys, look for the upside-down white plastic Ts at the field edges: those are poison bait stations with poison designed to kill small animals that venture into the fields. Traps or poisons are used to kill any animals once they find their way further into fields. Organic farmers often use traps for gophers with regular trap patrols as part of their daily operations. Passive forms of wildlife killing may seem a little less aggressive. In both conventional and organic agriculture at any scale, the mowing and tilling of crop areas leaves mutilated (hopefully quickly killed) critters in the wake of tractors: snakes, toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, birds, mice, moles, shrews, and voles are all decimated. Polluted runoff from both organic and conventional agriculture is another issue. Agricultural irrigation runoff into Elkhorn Slough has the highest levels of fertilizer in the US, equivalent to dumptruck load of fertilizer a day, causing terrible contamination of the state’s second largest estuary.

Ranching Conservationists

In contrast to the impacts of these cropping systems, I look to coastal prairie fed, pasture raised cattle that are managed in such a way to restore local ecosystems and provide food for those who would eat it. I’m not arguing against the need to reduce the amount of meat the world’s population eats: clearly, there is a lot of animal agriculture that is terrible. However, many ranchers locally are doing a world of good for wildlife and plant diversity with their coastal prairie stewardship. Globally, ‘abandonment’ of grazing in Spain, France, Britain, and other places with diverse grasslands has caused species loss and ecosystem degradation. Humans have been learning how to manage livestock to mimic evolutionary disturbance regimes that maintain wildlife and keep grasslands diverse and healthy. Most ranchers I know are enthusiastic about the wildlife they steward; many are working with conservationists to co-manage for biological diversity. This situation makes the contrast between veggie and beef burgers a little more interesting.

Wildlife Friendly

There is real potential for cropland management to be more sensitive to wildlife. One day our lettuce won’t come with such a legacy of wildlife displacement and death. There are only two wildlife-friendly food certifications that I know about: the Smithsonian’s certification of Bird Friendly Coffee and the relatively new Audubon Society’s certification for bird friendly beef. Taking its normal laudable step beyond the Federal guidelines for organic standards, Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) requires its certified members to maintain a conservation plan to address habitat stewardship. But CCOF lacks an ecologist to review or advise on such plans, so this effort mostly falls quite short of what is needed. Let me know if you know other attempts to address these gaps! Meanwhile, what are we to do? 

Ask a Farmer

The thing to do is ask the farmer who you support about their conservation practices. Already you probably understand the importance of supporting farmers directly by shopping at a farmer’s market. When you buy from them, you might ask how they take care of wildlife on their farm. The answer should take longer than either you or the farmer wants to take; shorter answers are probably insufficient and will be quick evidence that the farmer isn’t practicing wildlife friendly agriculture. Sensitive management of irrigation, runoff, ponds, hedgerows, cover crops, fallow fields, roads, and non-crop areas should almost all be part of any wildlife-friendly farmer’s skill base. And, they would have to explain a little about what ‘sensitive management’ means in each case – the stories aren’t too complex if someone knows their stuff, but the telling will take a little time. We need those stories. We need those conversations. Future generations will depend on farmers who integrate nature with their crops.

Chalks Chaparral

– this is another reprint from my post to Bruce Bratton’s most insightful brattononline.com weekly.

The Chalks stretches from above Año Nuevo into Big Basin south through the Lockheed property and then down many tiny ridges above Scott Creek and the Swanton community. Even before the CZU Fire, the ridges appeared from afar curiously white, like chalk. The earliest Old World explorers wrote in their log books about that striking whiteness. The barren white ridges are on account of extremely poor soil, mostly fractured rock. that limits the ability for vegetation to thrive. The vegetation that can make it is a unique type of chaparral.

Most people see The Chalks on their drive south on Highway One just north of Año Nuevo, South of Franklin Point as they pass the Coastanoa Resort. Look inland and you’ll see lots of broken ridges: those are The Chalks.

Much of The Chalks is on private property. Some is on what is known as “Lockheed Martin Space Systems” at the very end of Empire Grade. That area also contains a 1000-acre private property called “Lehi Park” a recreational and camping spot owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For public visitation, you’ll have to wait until Big Basin opens again…it’s still closed due to the last big fire. Meanwhile, you must settle for viewing from afar.

The Pines

At the top of the steep and erosive bluffs north of and above Waddell Creek, wind-blown, lichen strewn Monterey Pines form the chalks chaparral overstory, but their genes might make them something other than pure Monterey Pines. This is the home of one of only five native Monterey Pine stands. The others are on the Monterey Peninsula, around Cambria, and on two islands off of Baja – Cedros and Guadalupe. Monterey pines are the most planted forestry tree in the world, and the seeds of the ‘radiata pine’ created bred for those forestry plantings came from the Año Nuevo stand, where Monterey pine hybridizes with knobcone pine. Monterey pine occurs lower in elevation, and more deeply in frequent thick fog; Knobcone pine is found higher and hotter and dryer. In between, there are pines that look like both, and the globally planted forestry tree looks like one of those tweeners. As the birthplace of this confusing but useful forestry tree, The Chalks has its tree ambassador planted by the millions, all over the world. And yet, this tree isn’t the only famous bit of Chalks botany…there are also some world-famous manzanita species.

The Manzanitas

Chalks Chaparral includes 7 species of manzanitas, and there are two common, more widespread ones that dominate and two very rare species that only occur in this habitat. The most common species is brittle leaved manzanita, a widespread burl-forming species, and the subject of a previous essay. The other common species is the sensitive manzanita. Sensitive manzanita has small roundish shiny dark green leaves, making it look like the boxwood of the chaparral. Mixed in with these two species, there are two other manzanita species- two which exist nowhere else in the world: Ohlone manzanita and Schreiber’s manzanita. Each of these locally endemic manzanitas are very uncommon even in The Chalks and grow entirely on private property, so you can’t visit them outside of the UCSC Arboretum’s Conservation Garden. There might be as few as 100 Ohlone manzanita plants in the entire world!

You can, however, view photos of Shreiber’s manzanita from a 1939 expedition that led to its discovery. One photo archived by UC Berkeley shows a big manzanita surrounded by knobcone pines and chamise. Another photo has an overview of the habitat showing the large amount of bare ground with sparse manzanitas, pines and few oaks; that 1935 photo suggests a fire as recent as 14 years previously. The next fire was to be 8 years later in 1948.

You might be wondering about the other three manzanitas you can find on The Chalks. They are: Santa Cruz manzanita, silver leaf manzanita, and the crinite manzanita. On a rare California Native Plant Society field trip through the Lockheed property in the 1990s, we saw all 7 species within a short walk of one of our stops.

The Trails and Views

The best places to access The Chalks are in Big Basin State Park, now closed because of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire…but, put those trails on your list when it reopens. Whether from the coast or from inland, your destination are the ridges around Chalk Mountain. The trails wind on ridgelines with gorgeous views of the ocean overlooking Año Nuevo Island and a vast expanse of the ocean. On a clear day, you can see Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands to the north and Point Sur to the South.

Another place to aim for is Eagle Rock out of Little Basin. Eagle Rock is an isolated bit of sandstone on the eastern flank of The Chalks. The views from Eagle Rock expand eastward more than you might see from Chalk Mountain. The trail goes through a kind of chaparral closely allied to The Chalks, but with less rock showing than elsewhere.

Fires and Seeds

Both the 2009 and 2020 wildfires spread initially through The Chalks chaparral, same as the 1948 Pine Mountain fire. Those watching the 2009 fire said they saw what looked like fire tornados launching from one ridge and igniting the next ridge down wind. No one was watching for the more recent fire, which spread even more quickly. Both fires triggered fire-following seeds to germinate.

The most widespread and obvious fire following seedlings are bush poppies. Most of The Chalks will still be barren next summer (as before the fire), but patches of chest high blue-green bush poppy shrubs will be flowering with their bright yellow flowers next summer. I have tried everything to germinate those bush poppy seeds, including the recommended soak in white gasoline, presumably to break down its seed coat. But, after the fire…seedlings pop up all over.

The Chalks and the Rare Human Animal

Humans are rare in The Chalks. The Lockheed facility had, at its peak, hundreds of employees visiting this chaparral regularly, for work. But then much of it burned, and it is unclear if they will continue to operate the facility in the future. The Lehi property is also mostly ephemerally visited by people. The most common place to find humans in The Chalks had been out Last Chance Road where a culture all its own had homes sprinkled around patches of beautiful chaparral. That community, also, burned in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Much of what we know about the natural history of places is gleaned by humans who make habits of visiting those places and looking carefully at what’s around them. Historically, few people have wandered into The Chalks with an eye to natural history. Shreiber’s 1930’s era Chalks visit mentioned above highlighted the area to natural history enthusiasts with the discovery of a new manzanita species (and those intriguing photographs!). Then there’s Jim West, a botanist extraordinaire endemic to the Swanton area, who has brought The Chalks to the attention of many other naturalists, in part because of his discovery of the other new manzanita species. His work has led to a kind of Chalks revival with a new focus on vegetation mapping bringing a host of new naturalists’ attention to that area. There is much more to be discovered in The Chalks – who will be the next person to find something amazing up there? Post fire recovery may have many surprises…

Brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral

– This is another of my posts from Bruce Bratton’s (highly recommended!) weekly at brattononline.com

The rains bring alive chaparral, so this is the beginning of a series featuring local types of “hard chaparral.” The term chaparral is confusing, so I use the term ‘hard chaparral’ to denote chaparral dominated by manzanitas, chamise, and ceanothus. Hard chaparral is so thick and dense and strong as to tear the clothes off of you if you are strong enough to try to walk through it. Rarely, you might crawl beneath the hard chaparral canopy. Nothing grows in the understory – there is only a light dusting of leaves – but you must squinch low while crawling…to 1 ½ feet… and wiggle down on the ground in tight spots; wearing a hat helps so that your hair doesn’t get caught and pulled out by manzanita’s stiff twigs.

Hard chaparral is different than ‘soft chaparral’ – also known as coastal scrub – which is dominated at first by coyote bush, then, later in life, poison oak, monkeyflower, and sagebrush. Soft chaparral generally grows on richer soils, closer to the coast. Hard chaparral grows on the poorest of soils, often with no discernable soil at all. Ridgelines and steep slopes mostly away from the immediate coast are home to hard chaparral.

In hard chaparral, along with the manzanitas you will find many other shrubs and an overstory of pines. Sometimes sparse, sometimes dense, knobcone pines are the more common pine, but there’s a Monterey pines overstory near Año Nuevo. Oaks and Douglas firs slowly invade brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral until you eventually get a few forlorn dying shrubs or even just old barely recognizable skeletons that tell you the chaparral is gone, for now (awaiting fire!).

Brittle-leaved Manzanita Chaparral

Brittle-leaved manzanita is the dominant species of most of Santa Cruz’ hard chaparral. Smooth maroon skin with sinewy muscle-like ripples down thick, strong stems – that’s what most people remember about brittle leaved manzanitas, but the flowers and burls also give them away.

If they aren’t already in bloom, they will be soon. They have clusters of pure white to pink jewel flowers – upside down urns with windows to capture and magnify light, so the flowers glow on even foggy-cloudy days. Bopping from one cluster of flowers to the next…hundreds of bumble bees delight in the winter nectar feast. Hummingbirds, too, zip around sipping from the flowers. On warm days in December and January, brittle leaved chaparral smells strongly of honey, a scent which enchantingly wafts far afield, down into the woody canyons below.

Burly Shrubbies

Of the nine taxa of manzanitas found in Santa Cruz County, brittle leaved manzanita (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crustacea) is the most common and one of only two that have ‘basal burls’ or lignotubers. The other burly manzanita is a different subspecies of the same species (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crinita), that is mostly found at the top of Ben Lomond Mountain, from the Bonny Doon Airport north to Lockheed. To see burls on these manzanitas, look at the base of the stems for a swelling, sometimes quite large, of lumpy wood. These are very easy to see after a fire, because that’s where these manzanitas sprout new shoots. That’s their magic: the ability to get hotly scorched, fire removing all of the branches, and still live. Up pop the shoots as soon as the rains come…and three years later, there’s a Big Shrub once again where the last one stood.

Locations and Co-Occurring Treats

The tops of our parks are great places to visit this type of chaparral. The top of Wilder Ranch State Park, in what used to be known as Gray Whale Ranch, and into upper UCSC, has patches of brittle leaved manzanita chaparral. The top of Nisene Marks State Park also has stands of this chaparral type. Other places include Mount Madonna County Park, as well as Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. From the edges of trails, a wintertime treat will also be Indian warrior, a bright maroon perennial wildflower which forms large mats. Shooting stars and various rein orchids also sprout trailside in clear patches of this type of chaparral.

Another thing about wintertime chaparral visits that is intriguing are the lichens, mosses, and liverworts that color and texture the chaparral. Liverworts, in this dry habitat?? Yes! Get off your bike and kneel at that bare-soiled edge adjacent to the chaparral…look carefully…and you’ll see liverworts (and hornworts!) hugging the ground in between mosses and ground-hugging lichens. The intrepid will get to see more and more species by counting the number of different types of tiny things in those patches, which are kept bare by the golden crowned sparrows who retreated when you came their way.

Critters

Sure, chaparral is for the birds, and that’s not a bad thing. And yet, it’s not just for birds. Wrentits are the quintessential shrub habitat bird, and I also like watching the large-curved billed California thrasher. Wrentits bop around below the canopy, mostly, but pop up out on a branch to make their subtle descending ping-pong ball bouncing song. California thrashers, also understory creepers, sometimes jet out onto a high point in a chaparral patch and sing their hearts out with operatic glory.

The San Francisco Dusky Footed Woodrat makes homes on the outer periphery of brittle leaved chaparral patches. It seems this packrat likes oaks and coffee berry more than manzanitas, but manzanitas keep coyote at bay, so having that habitat at their backs is a preferred location. Ratttlesnakes like wood rats…and the summer heat of chaparral…so, that’s a good snake species to associate with hard chaparral. Rats and rattlesnakes….?

What Good Is It?

Brittle-leaved chaparral is good for lots, but unfortunately it is getting destroyed very quickly nowadays. Nutrient poor soils lost their nutrients because they are well drained. Well drained soils are important for recharging the groundwater, keeping our streams flowing and drenching our thirst. Because this hard chaparral can thrive in nutrient poor soils, it is responsible for keeping those slopes from washing into the creeks and for keeping our groundwater infiltration areas infiltrating. Those sprouting burls…they send roots out on steep slopes after fire, preventing landslides and debris flows from destroying homes and roads.

Mowing It Down

Despite ostensibly being protected, brittle leaved manzanita chaparral is getting hacked up at an alarming rate. Now that fire has our attention, bulldozers are hard at work ripping up manzanita burls to make ‘fire safe’ areas. Crushers, masticators, and saws whittle away manzanitas as if they were enemies. When asked, County Planners have said that they have policies to protect this habitat type- they don’t allow development activities within it. The California Coastal Commission also ostensibly protects this type of ‘maritime chaparral’ as an endangered ecosystem, disallowing any destruction. And yet, even from Highway 1, you can see vast patches of chaparral being destroyed on the ridges above Watsonville. Parks organizations are mowing it down even on conservation lands to be doing ‘their part’ with fire safety. From Southern California, we have learned that treating chaparral this way isn’t a solution to wildfire: it generally grows up patches of weeds, which are even more flammable, less able to hold slopes in place, and no replacement for the habitat value of hard chaparral.

What I hope for is more people showing others how to live safely, and sustainably, alongside manzanita chaparral that is well cared for. If you know of any places, please let me know.

Rain Awakes the Prairie

– from my 10/27/21 column at the highly recommended Bratton Online site

The rain is awakening the prairies; it is also time we awoke to the preciousness of these grassland habitats. Already, enough rain has fallen to wet the ground and trigger seed germination in the local meadows. Perennial flowers and grasses have also quickly flushed with new green shoots. The rains have brought migrating winter wildlife, increasingly threatened because, each year, there are fewer acres of grassland to which to return. It is because native peoples tended prairies that we have any prairies at all in our region. Now, together with indigenous peoples, we are relearning how to restore meadows. With attention and intention, we may one day witness the restoration of healthy populations of badger and burrowing owl living in flowered-filled meadows across the Central Coast. For this to succeed depends on more people sharing more coastal prairie wisdom. With that wisdom, together we can build and pass on new stories to future generations (and new arrivals) so that we might maintain grasslands and their many associated species.

Meadow Showers

Rain is soaking in, darkening the rich prairie soil with newfound moisture. Green patches of seedlings first appear along trails, on gopher mounds and other areas with less thatch. Soon, seedlings will also emerge from under the thick skeletons of prior years’ dead plants. Inhale the moist, cool air slowly, and you may detect new rainfall-induced scents. The first that strikes me is the pungent smell of mouse pee. Grasslands are thick with rodents and, for six months, mouse urine has been drying and concentrating on the soil surface. Now, that nutrient source has been re-wetted and is being soaked into the root zone, and it smells strongly throughout meadows. Beyond that scent, there is petrichor, the complex ‘fresh rain’ smell made up in part by compounds related to the scent essences of both cedar and beet root. With the new rain, I detect another smell…wet hay. When rain first falls, there’s a strong smell of newly moistened hay, and that scent turns quickly and sharply mushroomy. After a week of the first big rains, if you grab ahold of a thick mat of dead grass and pull- it will easily peel from the soil surface only clinging to a little soil. It will be held together with what look like bright white roots. These are fungal threads, soon to be better evidenced by their more familiar “fruiting bodies” – especially the familiar grassland types…puffballs and other fairy ring mushrooms. As if anticipating the quickly emerging life, new bird species arrived in the meadows just prior to the rains.

The Grassland’s Wet Season Birds

I had travelled a hundred times through one particular and expansive grassland and was startled to be reunited one morning with my favorite grassland bird: the meadowlark! These birds are almost as big as robins and have long stout pointy bills, yellow undersides and have long streaks combining yellow, brown, and black on their upper bodies. Their songs are loud and distinct – a signature noise of grasslands throughout the United States. Meadowlarks nest, eat, and sleep in wide open prairies. The flock I encountered that first day of their return was about 40 birds. Last I counted, three weeks into their winter stay, this tribe remained around that number. My bird guidebook’s range map suggests that western meadowlarks reside year-round around here, but that’s a national map evidently without fine enough scale for our particular rsituation. This local meadowlark group must nest elsewhere, in the spring and summer. In winter, our meadowlark clans join another very special winter-only prairie bird: the burrowing owl. Burrowing owls don’t dig, but they live in holes. Every winter, they surprise me as they flush from different kinds of holes: ground squirrel burrows, road culverts and agricultural pipes. When UCSC’s Seymour Center rat Terrace Point was still mostly surrounded by open meadows, burrowing owls could easily be seen in ground squirrel burrows on the berms piled up when someone was kind enough to try to hide the buildings. Those berms have been since bulldozed. UCSC also rousted burrowing owls from their last local nesting location when they paved the ‘remote’ parking lots. Given the chance, UCSC will continue paving over the increasingly endangered burrowing owl meadow habitat. Get it while you can, Regents! Your actions will literally pave the way for burrowing owls to become so rare they must be protected as endangered species by the State and Federal governments…saddling private landowners with even more regulatory burden. Meanwhile, we are lucky to have this owl, with tall yellow legs and huge, cute eyes; they can be found in the winter at UCSC and across the North Coast’s grasslands. Look for it vigorously bobbing its whole body while staring at you from quite a distance while it guards its precious sleeping hole.

Upland Newts??

The recent rains also bring another grassland critter to our attention: newts! Hiking over the freshly greening grass, I glanced into the mouth of a gopher hole: surprise! Looking back at me were the golden cat eyes of a rough skinned newt. Hands forward, this critter is like Dracula awaiting sun set to mosey out off its underground lair. That night, with the rain pattering down, it walked half a mile across the meadow, before sniffing out another unoccupied hole for the next day. Nocturnally travelling with uncanny directionality it joined an increasingly large group of its brethren, creating a river of newts, some of which made it across the road before sliding down the bank into a large breeding pond. Newts love the dry grasslands- that’s where they live most of the time, foraging all summer long in the cool darkness of rodent burrows. We think of them as stream or pond organisms, but mostly they are grassland creatures.

An Abbreviated Grassland Management History

Our local grasslands and their associated wildlife owe their presence to thousands of years of tending by native peoples. Without that tending, there would have been no ‘pasture’ for the invading old world cultures to graze livestock on. Indigenous cultures honed complex management activities to steward grasslands species. They used prescribed fire in small and large patches, at varying times and intensities to favor their desired outcomes. They cultivated plant species without our modern (gross) tractor tools.  They enjoyed a legendary favorite prairie feast that we can relate to involving prairie grown greens- salads full of diverse, freshly gathered tasty leaves and flowers especially from clovers. Their meadow tending created new cultivars and species. Plants provided food, medicine, basketry materials, clothing, tools, art, and so much more. Their management activities not only focused on plants but also wildlife management. Many of us would dearly love to have seen those prairie gardens.

After the Fall

After the genocide of the indigenous peoples, ranchers were responsible for maintaining open grasslands. Ranchers still manage many of the grasslands, but many are increasingly owned by public or private open space managers. Most recently, we have been moving towards relearning how to keep our prairies healthy. California native grasslands are one of the top ten most endangered ecosystems in the United States. More coastal prairie (grasslands in the fog belt) have been lost to pavement (‘urbanization’) than any other habitat in the USA. And coastal prairies are the most species-rich grasslands in North America. There are 80 plants species that only live in California’s coastal prairies. One third of all rare plant species in California are found only in grasslands. There are many plant and wildlife species in our local grasslands that are already recognized as endangered, and many more qualify for inclusion on state or federal endangered species lists.

Relearning

Amah Mutsun stewards are relearning alongside many others how to steward prairies. Far up the North Coast, the Amah Mutsun have been working with State Parks to remove shrubs and trees that have invaded ancient meadows. Elsewhere, State Parks has long had a prescribed fire program to restore prairie habitats. While the City of Santa Cruz effectively destroyed the meadows at Arana Gulch by fragmenting them with roads, City Parks staff are experimenting with prairie management regimes including grazing. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working hard to restore and maintain the Scotts Valley grasslands at Glenwood Open Space Preserve. For decades, weed warriors with the Ken Moore’s Wildlands Restoration Team, the California Native Plant Society and the Land Trust have been responsible for rescuing meadows from weeds, especially French broom. We are making great progress and learning a lot. Grassland restoration is extremely rewarding because you can so quickly see a positive response. But, we must do more…

Please discuss some of this essay with someone while its fresh in your mind, say in the next week. Without more awareness, we will have no grasslands to restore and poor badger and burrowing owl, meadowlark and newt won’t have homes anymore.

Beachtime

This was my post from the highly recommended weekly publication Bratton Online (10/20/21 edition)

People at the Beach

I hop off my bike and lock it to a post at the entrance to the beach. I’m here to meet Juan and Ted and their dog Fluffy for an evening stroll to catch up and get some fresh air. I smile with the transition to the beach, which is a regular way to leave my busy day behind and return me to myself, my normal world and what I want to be – relaxed! Squinting through the reflective brightness off the sparkling water, I spot my friends already down by the water and jog towards them. We exchange hugs and start on our walk. We won’t turn around for a long while…this stretch of sand goes on and on, and we have an hour before we need to head back to our homes. We keep to the wet sand where its easier (and less messy) to walk. Juan uses one of those plastic scoop arms for extra lift to lob a ball for Fluffy. There’s lots to talk about, the light breeze feels invigorating, the sand cool and wet between my toes. For the breeze and noise of the lapping waves, we walk closer than we might otherwise to hear one another better. Fluffy comes crashing into us as she rough houses with another dog, now we are sandy and wet to our waists, laughing, and smiling at another group passing by. The sun is getting lower, and the clouds are turning pastel orange and magenta, a myriad of colors reflected in fractal patterns of swirling sea foam. We’re quiet for a bit, pausing on our walk to watch bottlenose dolphins pass by and to hear the lapping waves. Way down the beach we approach a party – bonfires in big metal bins and chairs around portable tables, musicians setting up for an event that will last into the night. We are at our halfway point, turning around we face into the wind and towards the setting sun. I know from our past walks that we are now each pondering what more we want to ask to make sure we are all caught up on conversations that have lasted years. Our walks are not often enough, this time together is precious. The conversation picks up pace and the walk back seems faster than the way out. We brush off the sand, towel off Fluffy, and say our goodbyes.

Nonhumans at the Beach

In parallel, the nonhuman organisms at the beach were having very different experiences during our visit. Walking in the wet sand, Ted, Juan and I crushed hundreds of living organisms and smashed the structure of the sand where critters had tunneled for breath and to filter feed…contributing to the greatly diminished diversity and abundance of such organisms with increasing recreation on beaches. Fluffy’s cavorting flushed dozens of shorebirds, already exhausted from being frightened over and over by people and their dogs. Those shorebirds also particularly need the wet sand, where they probe for food; they only get a few chances to dart into that feeding zone between the constant parade of walkers. The fires and noise from the beach party will keep nesting beach birds on high alert nearby, as they cuddle their newborn chicks; those families will not be having restful nights and will have a harder time remaining healthy. Next season, maybe they will remember not to make a nest so close to those areas of the beach where parties light up the night, but there isn’t much beach left where they can still find peace.

What Makes a Beach?

There is so much we take for granted about our beaches and few even realize what a natural beach might look like, or how nature maintains and forms it. Our best beaches are sandy, and that sand is constantly on the move, eroding and replenishing with the wind, waves, and tides. Streams and rivers are beachmakers, depositing sand into the ocean. In Santa Cruz County, the sand is driven downshore from the north with the prevailing wind and current. Promontories create sand deposition shadows- rockier areas to the north of most beaches and more sand on the south, including piles of sand up on the bluffs above the beach to the south. Where beaches are wide enough, there are low mounds of sand towards the waves and bigger and bigger dunes further onshore. Typically, the sand blocks most rivers and streams in the summer, creating still water lagoons full of life.

Natural Diversity in the Sand

Our beaches are super-diverse ecosystems, teeming with life wherever we let them thrive. Where we don’t trample them, plants establish close to the sea. Sea rocket, with its pale, simple 4-petaled lavender flowers, is notoriously resilient, establishing from seeds that are constantly floating around the ocean waiting to wash ashore. This plant is cosmopolitan, on beaches around the world. By stabilizing the blowing sand, sea rocket starts formation of the little mounds we call foredunes. Foredunes then become habitat for many other species. Further inland are taller and taller back dunes where waves rarely crash. There can be freshwater ponds in back dunes in the winter. Elephant seals rest there. North facing back dune slopes have ferns and mosses; throughout these taller dunes you can find succulent plants, shrubs flowering year-round, endangered lupines, wallflowers, paintbrush, spineflower, and gilia…as well as many species of songbirds. Around the lagoons and ‘dune slack’ (ponds) ducks breed and red legged frogs, newts, and garter snakes flourish. Raccoons, pond turtles, egrets, herons, and lots more are at home in these wet areas.

Healing Beaches and Dunes

As I mentioned above, we have loved our beaches to death but, in some places, people are trying to establish more of a balance. Across the Monterey Bay, there is just one beach that is off limits to people: Wilder Beach. We set aside this State Park beach to protect nesting endangered snowy plovers. Any regular and observant beach goer will know this story: there are signs and “symbolic” fences on many beaches to remind people not to trample their habitat. Unfortunately, fences and signs are not enough, and the species is struggling to survive in our region. What few snowy plovers are left is because of a team of conservationists associated with the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science who monitor the species and work with parks managers to protect them. Without those always underpaid and generous people, there would be no signs and no fences: they serve as the conscience for the species and are supported by grants and donations. Further south, in Santa Barbara County, at Coal Oil Point, a docent program has volunteers standing by the plover fences with signs and binoculars educating visitors and assuring plover safety, a program that is being duplicated elsewhere. Again, generous conservationists coming to the rescue!

Snowy plovers are an indicator species for healthy beaches and dunes, and other programs are working to restore the plants needed to sustain healthy plover habitat. From Seabright Beach through Pacific Grove’s Asilomar State Beach, parks managers and volunteers are controlling invasive species and planting dune plants. Ice plant is the most widespread and pernicious threat. Each year for the rest of eternity, people will have to comb the beaches and dunes to find iceplant and rip it up before it takes over. Thanks to years of this work, we are starting to see the return of dunes and associated vibrant rolling mounds of wildflowers.

Before Our Time

Four hundred years ago…imagine the scene at the beach. Native peoples must have had a common presence on beaches for many reasons: launching boats, fishing, clam digging, tide pool foraging, harvesting of marine algae, leisure, and play. The lowest tides of the Spring and Fall must have drawn many people to the deep rocky intertidal where there were easier to reach larger and more varied shellfish. And there would have been grizzlies, condors, and coyotes sharing that space, feasting on (stinky!) washed up marine mammals. The tiny snowy plover probably had much larger flocks scampering around. Every beach would have had intact dune communities and clean lagoons.

The Future of Beaches

Can we find a way to conserve beach and dune species for future generations? What would that entail? Biologists suggest we need more control of the main threat: beach visitation – we already have too much. We thank the California Coastal Commission for steadfastly pursuing public access to beaches, a job that never seems to be finished. But we also understand that this agency has a mandate to protect biological diversity, something that they sometimes forget when it comes to beach access. For instance, they recently required the University to provide public access to Younger Lagoon and were surprisingly acquiescent at State Parks providing nearly unregulated and completely unplanned public access to Coast Dairies beaches. The Coastal Commission doesn’t have a plan for beach and dune biological conservation in California despite this being the only ecologically sensitive habitat that is in their jurisdiction statewide! I think almost all of us would like for all the plants and animals to have a place on Earth, even if it means giving up some of our conveniences…including our ability to use every beach or every inch of every beach. We need a comprehensive plan across all California beaches if we are to realize this outcome. And people need to care enough to support parks and the Coastal Commission if they decide to do pursue beach and dune protections. Oh, and it would be good to keep our Fluffy dogs from harassing beach wildlife, our strolls up on the dry sand, and our trajectories steering wide, away from foraging shorebirds.

Killing Santa Cruz’ Greenbelt

Fellow citizens of Santa Cruz, we have done so much good for the environment. We are transforming our city into a bicycling mecca, and our entire region will soon be powered by mostly renewable energy. Hundreds of volunteers work hard to keep our many beautiful beaches accessible and clean. We recycle and conserve water at unprecedented rates. Our culture strongly supports organic agriculture, and we purchase local and organic foods at a plethora of organic grocers and farmers markets every day of the week. And, we have supported leaders who found the funding and partners to protect thousands of acres of parks and open space across our lovely hills.

So why is our community welcoming the destruction of the City of Santa Cruz’ greenbelt?

The City’s Greenbelt has been a great environmental accomplishment. For a while, our City was circled by open space, and we nearly connected the pieces – from Natural Bridges State Beach to Antonelli Pond up to the Moore Creek Preserve and onto UCSC’s meadows, across Pogonip, down into Henry Cowell and Sycamore Grove, up onto De La Veaga Park, and down the creek to Arana Gulch and the Harbor. We worked well together to make that happen. Different people had different goals for supporting our Greenbelt: improving property values, protecting water quality, preserving nice views, protecting wildlife, creating recreational opportunities, limiting urban sprawl, and giving our children natural places to learn and grow.

Setting the land aside has been the easiest part of reaching our greenbelt goals. But, the greenbelt is relatively new – it is in its infancy – and Santa Cruzans are proving poor stewards.

Neighbors complain that greenbelt areas are messy homeless encampments, harboring unsavory elements and even criminals. Trail erosion, pavement, fires, and trash in greenbelts pollute our streams. The pleasant views of the greenbelt are being transformed though crowds of users, buildings, recreational infrastructure- fences, roads, signs, and parking lots- all of which is destroying wildlife habitat and scaring away what critters are left. For those who would enjoy the parks, planners with little capacity are trying to provide for all types of recreation, assuring degradation of the quality of all recreational experiences. The greatest number of those who would use the greenbelt for generations to come are those seeking peaceful, passive, family recreation. That potential is rapidly disappearing – our children’s children will have to travel further from home to enjoy quiet nature experiences, healthy wildlife, or clear-running streams.

How did the Greenbelt end up in this mess?

Organizational and individual leadership and capacity has been lacking to preserve and steward the Santa Cruz Greenbelt. The agency responsible for oversight of the greenbelt is the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department; its mission is ‘to provide the best facilities, recreational cultural and parks programs.’ The agency is understaffed and mostly focused on safety, aesthetics, and maximizing recreational development. Greenbelt conservation then falls to nonprofit advocates- friends groups and larger environmental organizations. Pogonip Watch and Friends of Arana Gulch are important. Volunteers with the California Native Plant Society work hard to raise funds, educate our community, pull invasive species, and are focused on a few mostly long-term conservation issues. But, they can’t do enough. The local chapter of the Sierra Club has had difficulty addressing much local nature conservation as well, and greenbelt issues have divided the group.

Meanwhile, well-funded and organized special interest groups are succeeding in transforming the greenbelt to benefit a small fraction of our community. A passionate bicycle transportation community along with lucrative mountain bicycle businesses are succeeding in carving up the greenbelt, criss-crossing it with high-speed recreation and transportation corridors. Organizations hoping to make some small improvements with homelessness issues are converting 9 acres of Pogonip’s wildlife habitats to agriculture; they hope also to have a permanent homeless encampment there, as well. Sports enthusiasts are working to transform still more of Pogonip to ballfields.

These special interests join the City of Santa Cruz and most other regional leaders who seem to believe that more is better when it comes to extractive use of natural areas, including the Greenbelt. Here are three bars of their collective public relations tune:

  • The greenbelt works best when it serves the maximum number of people and types of uses.
  • Legitimate use of the greenbelt drives away unsavory use.
  • If we don’t maximize use of the greenbelt, people will stop caring about preserving nature.

These three statements are false.

We need to support organizations and leaders that will expose these falsehoods and work to preserve the greenbelt for future generations.

To solidify our commitment to a greenbelt that supports wildlife, clean water, and passive recreational enjoyment, our greenbelt areas need to be protected by conservation easements enforced by third party organizations. Only then can our greenbelt be protected from the special interest groups which will inevitably garner political support until nothing is left.

The Narcissi-ists versus the Tenders of Native Bulbs

An essay about living in place using a recent example of ego-logical management of our common landscape

Opening

Every moment, we face personal choices to work against or with nature. Some of those choices have more, some have less, impact. In sum, those choices reflect how we see ourselves in the world. In this essay, I contrast two cultures from the North Coast of Santa Cruz: those who embrace the widespread planting of daffodils versus those who favor the wide ranging management for native species of bulbs. I illustrate how cultural norms of the former are indicative of a wider dis-ease of our species, which is dooming future generations to reduced standards of living and increased poverty of the spirit. And, I outline how a contrary world view can lead us to increased prosperity in a world with clean water, plentiful wildlife and happy, healthy children.

Transforming Nature or Transforming Ourselves

Some people feel most at home only after the landscape is transformed away from nature. Others are transforming themselves to settle comfortably into what is more natural. Managing our yards, our cities, our parks, our landscape against, or away from nature seems easier and its certainly more common. This process might even be called “normal.” Managing our yards, our driveways, our farms, our parks and our citiscapes to be in harmony with nature is unusual, harder, and is a Big Continuous Adventure- an opportunity for clearly unending work. And yet, transforming our landscapes away from Nature does not serve our interests over the long run. Managing WITH nature is the only hope for future generations. Which way will you go? Let’s walk together for a moment towards these two destinations and see what feels more right..

To avoid quibbles, I’ll first admit that we can’t help but transform nature whatever we do…but whether we choose to manage our lands with or against nature is more than a matter of degree. I see a philosophical division in these approaches, a way we choose to be, that is vastly different depending on what you intend to do. And yet, there are many paths, many vehicles, to work for or against nature when managing our land. The future is uncertain…. 

To illustrate the choice between the two approaches. I ask the simple question:

Are you in favor of widespread planting of daffodils? 

The Narcissi-ists Project

My community recently faced this question. And the debate became quite nasty. But, the words and ideas were very telling about how people living on the same mountain see our common landscape. There are diametrically opposed approaches to land stewardship at work simultaneously on Ben Lomond Mountain. I predict who will win: the culture that is managing against nature. And, I suspect how that dominant paradigm turns out: global warming, a world on fire, not enough food, not enough clean water, miserable people, extinct wildlife, air pollution…etc.

A little context and back story for the local situation is in order.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire blackened our landscape last August and, in response, some people thought it would be nice to color that blackened landscape with splashes of cheerful color. This was their way of recovering from a traumatic disaster where people lost homes, pets, and their belongings. The green forests, lush shrublands, and moist stream corridors were transformed in the course of a week to crispy dry blacks, browns, and ashy grays. Wouldn’t it be nice, they thought, if daffodils would brighten this bleak landscape come spring? More than just art or gardening, to them this was building community and healing.

And thus, The Narcissi-ists Project was born. Bushels of daffodil bulbs (genus Narcissus, many cultivars; plural of the common name, Narcissus, is Narcissi) were purchased and people were urged to buy and plant them along roadsides and wherever visible to the public. Many people warmly welcomed this community project, proudly announcing their plantings on social media and urging their neighbors to participate.

To understand whether The Narcissi-ists Project was a choice towards the transformation away from Nature or towards Nature, one has to understand how daffodils might or might not ‘fit’ into the ecology of the area. So, here’s some natural history…

Daffodils in California? Nooooo!

Daffodils don’t belong in California, and they don’t fit in. They are toxic, their colors are strikingly foreign to the landscape, they compete with native plants, reduce pollinator communities, they present an increased fire hazard, and they are nearly impossible to remove once established…there’s no going back.

Narcissus species have the poison called lycorine, especially concentrated in the bulbs. Ingestion of the plants can cause seizures, abnormal heartbeat, pain, and/or convulsions. Apparently, pet dogs are routinely hospitalized for ingesting the species. Even exposure to dust from the dead bulbs or sap can cause problems. People say that adult dogs might be as smart as 5 year old humans. I wonder how many people would put daffodil bulbs where their two year old toddler might ingest them? Probably no one would wittingly do such a thing. And so, why would any kind person put these poisonous bulbs where baby wildlife might encounter them?

Aesthetically, daffodil bulbs stand out in our local landscape: nothing in nature looks anything like them. Those yellow trumpets add to the seas of non-native yellows created by French broom and Bermuda buttercup. The Big Yellow daffodil trumpets appear in early spring, visually shouting above any of the more subtle wildflowers that naturally occur at that time. At Daffodil Time, there are numerous subtle white-pink native wildflowers: manzanitas, madrone, milk maids, sorrel, and star lilies to name a few, more common species. How is the Narcissi-ists project transforming the aesthetic of our common landscape? What will this screaming yellow do for our children’s expectation of the spring landscape…will those yellow trumpets change their ability to engage with the more subtle and diverse native wildflowers? Will this New Color make them want to further transform and brighten the landscapes of their future, to make them even MORE COLORFUL?

One bulb planted begets seeds and bulblets and yet more plants over time. The process is slow and site specific. Some dry, sandy soils are poorly suited for some Narcissus cultivars and those die out without additional ongoing care. Other, more moist ditches, meadows, seeps, cliffsides, or dunes are more conducive to daffodils. In those places, over time, the species is proving to be slowly invasive, edging out native plants and spreading from where they were introduced. A home site high up in the meadows of Wilder Ranch State Park has hundreds spreading from where they were once planted. A bulb field above 4 Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch has hundreds of daffodils clinging to rocky cliff edges and down into ravines adjacent to the fields they were once cultivated for cut flowers. There are escaped daffodils near Scott Creek Beach, perhaps from a memorial planting or from cultivated fields or homesites nearby. All of these populations are spreading and removing them would be impossible without concerted toxic herbicide work in difficult to reach places with follow up over many years. Meanwhile, those daffodils are doubtlessly causing wildlife poisoning. And, wherever they invade, daffodils displace native plants with their flowers that support pollinators, which we desperately need to conserve due to declining honey bee populations.

(Oh, and by the way, daffodils die back in the spring and leave a relatively large amount of papery, easy to ignite fuel, creating a fire hazard – be sure to rake that stuff up and dispose of it appropriately)

That was a lot of information about one type of landscape manipulation- one project of the Narcissi-ists in our area, taking steps to transform our landscape away from nature with all the concomitant repercussions.

The Other Way: Tending the Wild Bulbs

But, there is another way…to live with nature. For clarity of contrast, I use another bulb culture analogy. There is a burgeoning movement of people wanting to learn how to tend the wild. Our local naturalists, primitive skills practitioners, wildlife trackers, native plant gardeners, and weed warriors are exuberant about the relearning of the Amah Mutsun, gleaning lessons from them and other tribal peoples about how to live with the land here in California. We practice what we learn where we live, where our friends live, or where we can help conservation lands managers. We get to know the native geophytes, our native bulbs, some of which have been important native foods to the indigenous peoples. 

Many native bulbs respond very favorably to tending, even to fire. Star lilies bolt ten times as big after fire. Randy Morgan draws our attention to a narrowly endemic, endangered bee he captured pollinating the native star lily in the UCSC meadows. Native checkerlily and globe lily bound abundant when the forest understory is tended. There are many stories of people tending grasslands with digging sticks, harvesting and cultivating native bulbs for food.

(An aside- native bulb leaves are not very plentiful, are largely edible to wildlife and so do not accumulate as a fire hazard)

We steward native grasslands, woodlands, and redwood forests to tend our native bulbs. After fire, we must patrol for jubata grass invasion and control broom and ivy. With more light on the forest floor, bulbs will do better, but so might the weeds. 

Native bulb stewards work to figure out how to live on this fire adapted landscape so that we have native bulbs in the future. Scientists forecast more frequent, more intense fires and wind storms with increased global warming. In California with more frequent more intense fires, forests give way to shrublands and those to weedy grasslands…the bulbs disappear. And so, native bulb stewardship requires political action to end fossil fuel consumption and to transform agriculture and improve building and transportation efficiency. 

Of the two bulb cultures, which one do you want to join?

(and, its not about just bulbs)

Scaling Up: the Ego-Political Landscapes of Narcissi-ist Types Across our Common Planet

I wonder if those who would affiliate with the Narcissi-ists have similar notions about transforming Planet Earth in other ways. One suggested that they believe daffodils to be different than French broom, the latter being a problem but not the former. Here, we meet abandonment of the precautionary principle, which is inherent in managing with nature: how do we act so that no harm is irreparably done? This is why managing for nature is ongoing and full of observation. Those who think that the precautionary principle should only apply to human bodies and not the body of life that supports humans are being short sighted, they may be either faithful in technological solutions or believers in an inevitable apocalypse (which I have found is depressingly common). Would those types of people have us make swift uninformed decisions for relatively short-term and minor outcomes, in general?

Another of the Narcissi-ists has pointed to their own (inexpert) online research to show that daffodils are not invasive. This notion was presented despite local and very experienced experts testifying (in a signed letter) to the contrary. And so, those who would transform nature appear to not only abandon the precautionary principle but also to embrace a world where group expertise is rejected in favor of individual experience. Science denial writ large is just one step away from that approach. Dismissal of indigenous knowledge is another outcome of that way of thinking. In short, I wonder how the Narcissi-ist types are thinking life will thrive in seven generations, and who do they think should guide us towards the best outcome?

The Monument-Worthy Birds of Cotoni-Coast Dairies: An Analysis

Introduction and Background

Obama’s Proclamation giving National Monument status to Cotoni Coast Dairies included protection for an interesting list of birds: a challenge or a nose-thumbing to preservationists? We don’t know, but in this essay I present both perspectives. First, a reminder that experts presented the President with a science-based white paper suggesting a list of sensitive natural resources worthy of protection by his Proclamation; most local conservation organizations wrote letters supporting this proposal. The white paper included 7 species of birds that are protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but not protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and so, without mention in the Monument Proclamation, might not be protected on BLM lands:

  • American peregrine falcon –  Falco peregrinus anatum– CA fully protected
  • Bryant’s savannah sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus – CA Species of Special Concern
  • Ferruginous hawk – Buteo regalis – California Watch List (wintering)
  • Grasshopper sparrow – Ammodramus savannarum – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Northern harrier – Circus cyaneus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Olive-sided flycatcher-Contopus cooperi – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Short-eared owl –Asio flammeus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Tricolored blackbird – Agelaius tricolor – CA Threatened
  •  White-tailed kite – Elanus leucurus – CA Fully Protected (nesting)

The white paper also included recommendation for recognition of species that are federally protected as long as they are on California BLM’s sensitive animal list:

  • Burrowing owl – Athene cunicularia – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA Species of Special Concern
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA fully protected

And, experts mentioned two other notable bird species that frequent the property:

  • Red-tailed hawk – Buteo jamaicensis – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus – IUCN Status: Least Concern

At first glance… the Proclamation was a moderate success for bird conservation- experts proposed 11 bird species for the Proclamation, and the President’s Proclamation included 9 bird species. But, the Proclamation included just two of the species experts proposed: the white tailed kite and peregrine falcon. Besides the kite and falcon, the other species listed by the President are common and widespread enough to not warrant any conservation concern. Here are the other 7 birds listed in the President’s proclamation, along with their listing status:

  • American kestrel – Falco sparverius – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Black swift – Cypseloides niger – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Cooper’s hawk – Accipiter cooperii- IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Downy woodpecker – Picoides pubescens – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Orange-crowned warbler – Oreothlypis celata – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Tree swallow – Tachycineta bicolor – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Wilson’s warbler – Cardellina pusilla – IUCN Status: Least Concern

Optimism: A Presidential Challenge?

An optimist might consider the list of birds in the President’s Proclamation could be seen as a challenge to biologists, preservationists, and BLM. The President might have been truly insightful, providing protection for species common enough across the property for scientifically sound analysis of the impacts of varying levels of future visitor use. Only when there are enough nesting attempts of a bird species can we compare nest success in areas with and without visitors, or between areas of varying visitor use types/intensities.

With all of the biota listed in the Proclamation, BLM is required to provide protections in their management plans, setting scientifically-based preservation targets, and monitoring the status of these resources over time. Establishing preservation targets for species will involve developing various hypotheses, such as:

  • What is a minimum viable population size?
  • How many individuals are necessary to maintain their ecological functions?
  • How many individuals are necessary in various parts of the property to ensure that the public has an opportunity to view them?

It is likely that at least some of these birds are common enough across the property right now, when the property is seeing very little visitor use, that experts can inventory their densities and then notice change over time in response to varying management decisions. This would not be the case with more uncommon species.

I should point out that this optimistic viewpoint is difficult to completely uphold because the President did not include the expert’s suggestion of olive-sided flycatcher in his Proclamation: this is a species common enough on the property to meet the criteria outlined above.

Pessimism: A Presidential Nose-Thumbing?

The pessimist might consider it a purposeful snub by the President when he ignored most of the birds recommended by experts for inclusion in the Proclamation. He might have various reasons for snubbing the experts.

For instance, in recent Santa Cruz County history, and with the Monument Campaign in particular, we have seen political leaders leveraging and emphasizing the divide between pro-access, maximum use, recreation advocates and conservation advocates. If the pro-access, maximum use advocates had leverage with the President, they may have advised that inclusion of the conservation community’s recommendations as something to ignore.

An additional and perhaps additive possibility is that the President’s advisers were opposed to preservation of grassland habitat on the property, possibly because of the near necessity of using livestock grazing to maintain that habitat. Despite a growing scientific consensus, some maintain that California’s coastal grasslands are largely ‘unnatural’ relicts of human management, evidenced by their ‘natural’ succession into mixed coniferous forests. And, while fire is sporadically used to maintain California’s coastal grasslands, livestock grazing is more common. Many of the bird species that experts recommended for inclusion are dependent on extensive grassland habitats; some may even require livestock grazing to maintain structure that is conducive to nesting success. The reader is no doubt cognizant of some of the environmental community’s opposition to livestock grazing on conservation lands, and this philosophy could well have been in play when advisers helped the President to draft his Proclamation. None of the birds included in the President’s Proclamation rely on grassland habitat.

A final additional and perhaps additive possibility is the Presidential adviser philosophy that the protection of grassland dependent birds might interfere with maximizing visitor use of the property. Grasslands on the property offer the easiest opportunities for access to the many visitors desiring expeditious photographic opportunities. And so, perhaps the President’s advisers refused protection of grassland birds in order to more readily allow for maximum visitor use.

Concluding Remarks

The future will help inform the prevalence of the optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of the President’s motivations for naming the Monument-worthy birds of Cotoni Coast Dairies in his Proclamation. With luck, we may be able to have conversations with the President’s Proclamation advisers to learn, first-hand their rationale. And, we may gather more clues in the advocacy of Monument Campaign organizers and others during the planning process for the property. We will share our discoveries to help science-based conservationists better engage with similar situations in the United States. And, we will use what we learn to improve our strategy moving forward with preserving the sensitive natural resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Postscripts

  1.  One reviewer suggested an alternative possibility for the President’s advisers largely avoiding the experts’ list of sensitive bird species: the advisers may have not recognized the credibility or legitimacy of the source of information.
  2. Another reviewer pointed out the irony of the Proclamation recognition of indigenous peoples and yet the lack of inclusion of those peoples’ iconic birds: eagle and hummingbird.
  3. Bird experts point out that the President’s inclusion of American kestrel was cogent because of a regional decline in nesting, a phenomenon that isn’t explicable but warrants attention.
  4. Bird experts also point out that the President’s inclusion of black swift is curious because the species has never been known to nest on the property, and nesting areas anywhere nearby have long been abandoned.